A longstanding Cuban antiviral is being reported as one of the medications used in China for people infected with COVID-19 coronavirus (C19). It acts as “a protective mechanism, preventing patients from getting worse, reaching a severe stage, with death as the outcome”. The antiviral is ‘Interferon Alpha 2b’. It has proven effective for viruses with characteristics similar to those of C19. This antiviral medication imitates and supplements an antiviral response that already takes place in the body through the injection of manufactured interferons. One of interferons roles is to disrupt the reproduction of viruses. (Granma 2020; Harvard University Press)
This suggests two things: (1) If interferons disrupt viral reproduction, does this not mean people using this medication will also have a lower viral load? If so, it is ‘likely’ that people with high interferon load will be less infectious. This would contribute to slowing or stopping the spread of the virus. (2) If the body already produces interferons, is it possible to boost their production through lifestyle or dietary changes? Specifically, ones readily available to most people today (as not all countries have access to Cuban medicine). In doing so, helping them become slightly less infectious and better surviving the symptoms of having C19. If so, then research into boosting interferon production in the body that has antiviral effects is worth considering. The rest of this blog outlines some of this research and the consequent considerations.
If we look at the history of research into interferons, the scientific lineage that led to Cuba and now China’s production of Interferon Alpha 2b is the most significant, but not the only outcome. Whilst European Virologists initiated this major thread of research into interferons (Pestka 2007), two Japanese virologists, Dr Yasuichi Nagano and Dr Yasuhiko Kojima were also researching interferons (1954). A study co-authored by Dr Kojima, building on his earlier research with rabbits, applied his interest in finding plant extracts that can boost interferon production in the human body (Kaji et al. 2004).
This research concluded that Pumpkinseed extract (Curcubita moschata) Safflower flower extract (Carthamus tinctorius) Asian plantain seed extract (Plantago asiatica) and Japanese honeysuckle flower extract (Lonicera japonica) “may be safe and useful as an antiviral treatment. This study used chronic hepatitis C as its viral case-study, but its findings are relevant to other viruses. This paper also built on previous research that concludes that these plant “extracts decrease the incidence of viral pneumonia and the mortality rate in pigs”.
My evaluation, according to the model for scientific certainty used by the IPCC, is this is an ‘established but incomplete’ route of enquiry that requires further research. I find it to be a particularly appealing avenue in a world where viruses are seen as spreading and ‘invading’ the world, to turn around and partner with another agent that is also seen as ‘invasive’; Japanese Honeysuckle. It is increasingly found across the globe and therefore readily available to be processed into a potential plant-based ‘soft’ antiviral.
However, right now an easily available and already processed and manufactured ‘soft’ antiviral that has better ‘well established’ properties at boosting interferon production in the body comes from Camellia sinensis; the Tea tree. This includes black tea, green tea and white tea. A study by a team of immunologists at Harvard University concluded that when tea is digested, it produces L-theanine, which is a precursor for a bodily process that results in increased interferon production (2003). In the case of this study, it is in relation to bacteria; however, the studies co-author confirms that this is also relevant for viruses. The importance of the study is that the biological processes promoted by tea can “function as a bridge between innate and acquired immunity.”
In a follow-up interview, the co-author Jack Buckowski MD noted a few helpful clarifications (2004). First that tea needs to be drunk daily and ideally at least 3-5 cups and over some [unspecified: days-weeks] time for the body to establish and remember a new state of immunological being that can better handle viruses. Second, the manufacturing process does not seem to have any effect on whether the tea works or not in this way, so price and source is not an issue per se (obviously it will have an impact in other ways not directly related to this topic). Third, for those who cannot tolerate much caffeine, it is not known whether decaffeinated tea works just as well; however, apparently there is no reason to suspect otherwise. Finally, from my own experience, I cannot tolerate highly caffeinated drinks, nor can I tolerate the harshness of black and green tea at these quantities. If you experience the same, I find white tea a good alternative as it is smooth on an empty stomach and low in caffeine. My favourite variety is the pictured wheel of Fuding White Tea from China.
Conclusion: Getting into a tea-drinking habit might mitigate the severe effects of C19. If that does not work it seems breathing difficulties are one of the most severe effects of C19. It also seems ventilators are in short supply. Here is a crowdfund to create Open Source ventilators and address that.